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How to Prune a Peach Tree

Do you want that beautiful peach tree in your backyard to provide you with the best fruit year after year? If so, you’ll need to learn the art and science of how to prune a peach tree — selectively cutting or trimming branches — to keep the tree healthy and able to produce high-quality peaches.

Closeup of peaches growing on a tree. Knowing how to prune a peach tree means getting great fruit each year.

Read on to find out more about why you should be pruning your peach tree and to learn the best practices for how to prune a peach tree.


Why You Should Know How to Prune a Peach Tree

Even though you may be enjoying the peaches from your backyard tree this year, there’s no guarantee you’ll be enjoying as much of its fruit in pies, or ice cream, or even straight from the branches, as the tree blooms and produces fruit in succeeding years.

That’s because peach trees require annual pruning for optimum harvests. Pruning will keep your peach tree from developing diseases, will lengthen its life, and also will keep it from overproducing, which results in smaller peaches.

Ripe peaches on a tree.

You shouldn’t expect your peach tree to begin producing fruit until about four years after you’ve planted it, but that doesn’t mean you can ignore pruning in those first few years. In fact, experts suggest a peach tree should be pruned as soon as it is planted, so it’s never too early to learn how to prune a peach tree.

That first pruning should be fairly drastic, reducing the tree’s size by about half. As invasive as it sounds, that degree of pruning will help the tree cope with the shock and stress of being permanently placed, will help reduce damage to it, and will give you a head start on shaping the tree for maximum fruiting and easy harvesting.


The Best Time to Prune a Peach Tree

Spring is the best time to prune a peach tree, but do it before the tree’s sap begins running.

Your peach tree’s sugary liquid sap contains materials that help it stay healthy and grow, so it makes sense to understand how to prune a peach tree so you’re not cutting into the tree as those materials are being transported through it. Among other things, sap keeps your peach tree’s temperature regulated, cooling it in summer and heating it in winter.

Crystals from peach tree sap.
Crystals from peach sap.

It’s also just easier to prune your peach tree in spring before the foliage has had a chance to develop because with no leaves in the way, you can more clearly see the shape into which you are pruning the tree to ensure optimal fruit growth.


Tools You’ll Need to Prune a Peach Tree

Depending on its size, of course, you should expect to spend an hour or two pruning your peach tree. Before venturing out to the backyard, though, you should be certain you have the right tools for the job, which is one of the keys to knowing how to prune a peach tree.

Pruners

First on the list of necessary tools is — surprise! — a pruner. Pruners, which to the peach-tree-growing novice will look like the meanest-ever pair of scissors, come in a variety of cutting diameters and are key in the work of how to prune a peach tree.

Hand Pruners
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Some pruners are able to handle branches as large as an inch in diameter, but there also are smaller pruners available for finer work that are designed to cut branches as small as one-eighth of an inch in diameter.

You might want to have a couple of pruners on hand, one to handle larger branches and a smaller one to make it easier to get into tight spaces where smaller branches might need to be trimmed.

Finally, there’s just one rule when it comes to choosing a pruner as you learn how to prune a peach tree: Don’t cheap out!

Be sure to buy a high-quality pruner to make the clean cuts needed for effective pruning of your peach tree.

Loppers

Basically, loppers serve as your pruners’ big brother. With long handles that can help you reach higher into your peach tree, loppers also provide leverage for cutting branches up to 2 inches in diameter.

Loppers

When buying a lopper, observe the same rule as with pruners, and spend the extra money on a high-quality tool. In the long run, that will ensure you’re doing the best possible job of learning how to prune a peach tree.

Pruning saw

As your peach tree grows, you may find that pruning shears, or even loppers, won’t handle the needed trimming of larger limbs. In that case, a pruning saw will be a worthwhile investment as you learn how to prune a peach tree.

A pruning saw.

Pruning saws are particularly helpful when you’re working on those larger limbs because they can be operated with just one hand.

Ladder

When properly pruned, a peach tree at maturity will measure somewhere between 10 and 12 feet tall and will be roughly equal in diameter. At that size, continuing with proper pruning may mean you’ll need a ladder.

Tripod ladders.

Tripod ladders, built specifically for landscaping work, feature a wide base that tapers as the ladder height increases. Tripod ladders have a single arm that spreads out from the ladder steps, which allows you to get closer to the tree than with a stepladder.

It might seem counterintuitive, but landscape professionals say a tripod ladder, because it can be used more easily on an uneven surface, is actually the most stable option for pruning. And that’s just one of the things you’ll learn as you discover how to prune a peach tree.

Nonetheless, a large number of 8-foot stepladders that also can be used in pruning peach trees are available. All of them, though, require strict attention to safety rules, such as ensuring the spreaders separating the two halves of the ladder are locked for stability, and that the ladder is sitting level on the ground.


Protect Yourself While Pruning

Being safe while pruning your peach tree extends beyond making sure you have the right tools for trimming the tree. It’s also important to take steps to protect yourself from possible injury or discomfort as you venture into learning how to prune a peach tree.

Wearing gloves and long sleeves while pruning.

To that end, make sure you’re prepared for pruning by heading to the backyard with a pair of work gloves, a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, sturdy non-skid shoes, and protective eyewear to protect you from snapping branches and other hazards.


How to Prune a Peach Tree

Before you start pruning your peach tree, it’s important to understand exactly how you’re going to get to the desired result of producing a yield of delicious, high-quality peaches and ensuring that kind of yield continues year after year.

As a first step, cut out any “water sprouts” on the tree, particularly those that have formed at its base. Water sprouts are upright shoots that grow from dormant buds along the tree, taking away nutrients that should be going to promote healthy tree growth and producing peaches.

Pruning a large sucker or water spout on a tree.

Water sprouts also are particularly weak structures, meaning that they are an easy place for disease to be introduced into your peach tree.

Other steps in knowing how to prune a peach tree effectively include cutting out older wood in the top of the tree to make way for newly growing branches to thrive. When cutting out older wood, do so at the base of the branch you’re removing.

‘Thinning Cuts’ and ‘Heading Cuts’

One of the first things you learn with regard to how to prune a peach tree is that you will be making two types of cuts on the tree.

First, “thinning cuts” are used to take out entire branches to allow light to penetrate through the interior of the peach tree to stimulate fruit development. Thinning cuts also specifically target diseased and damaged branches of your tree.

Second, “heading cuts” should be made at some point along any given branch at a point just prior to a bud. Cutting your peach tree at those points will stimulate growth, producing more vegetation.

Heading cuts also are necessary to shorten your peach tree’s branches, making them stiff and thus better able to support the weight of ripening peaches.


The ‘Cat Tossing’ Rule for Pruning Peach Trees

Among the tricks for how to prune a peach tree is observing what is inelegantly referred to as the “cat tossing” rule.

Despite its name, the rule provides important, and readily understandable, guidance as to the right amount of pruning for your peach tree.

The informal rule holds that all of the branches on a properly pruned peach tree should be far enough apart that a cat could be tossed between them without hitting a single branch.

A cat in a tree while a man is pruning.

‘Open Center’ Pruning is the Goal

Peach trees, like many other fruit trees, should be pruned to achieve an “open center” shape. The end goal is a peach tree that, rather than having a central stem with branches radiating out from it, has four or five stems growing away from the center of the tree.

Growing in that way produces a tree with a goblet-like shape that allows sunlight and rain to reach a much larger cross-section of the tree.


Pruning Techniques for Young Peach Trees

Pruning of young peach trees is critically important because it sets the course for much of the future growth of the tree.

Initial pruning of your peach tree should ensure that its lowest branch is a little more than a foot from the ground. That initial pruning also should ensure that the highest branch of the tree is less than 3 feet from the ground. Any branches below or above those limits should be trimmed.

Also, to ensure lasting strength for your peach tree, take care that, as far as possible, branches of the tree grow at a 45-degree angle. If you’ve selected a peach tree that doesn’t meet this criterion, the best approach is to cut everything but a single bud and wait for the tree to produce one or more 45-degree angle branches.


Pruning Techniques for Older Peach Trees

Mature peach trees produce their own set of challenges for pruning, although at least some of the required action for how to prune a peach tree that is well-established is straightforward. For example, pruning a mature peach tree should include removal of all unhealthy and dead branches, along with taking out water sprouts and removing any dried fruits remaining from harvest time.

A peach tree heavy with fruit.

As your tree matures, you’ll need to choose which of its branches will be its primary branches. Choose between four and six branches for that role, remembering that they should be growing at a 45-degree angle from the trunk, and trim off the remaining branches.

Pay particular attention to branches that are growing horizontally or vertically from the trunk of the tree. Those branches can break easily when loaded with peaches and should be removed to prevent damage to the tree and to keep disease away.


Knowing How to Prune a Peach Tree Means Best Fruit Harvests

We hope that this post has pointed out the need for careful pruning to ensure that your peach tree remains healthy, produces tasty fruit, and is easy to harvest as it grows.

Ripe harvested peaches in a wooden box.

Because peaches can grow across nearly all of the United States, there are plenty of resources and help available for learning how to prune a peach tree. A good place to start is with the Cooperative Extension Service in your state.

If you’d like to learn more about peach trees, visit our Peach Trees page for all our peach-related blog posts.